Yei and Yeibichai Navajo Rugs

“Happily I recover. Happily my interior becomes cool.”

“Wu’ hu’ hu’ hu’. Wu’.”

We heard him coming from the green arbor at the eastern end of the long dance oval. Yeibitsai, Talking God, Maternal Grandfather of the Navajo Holy People, God of dawn, the eastern sky and animals of the chase. Yeibitsai precedes all the masked dancers on the last night of the Night Chant, a nine day healing ceremony that purifies a patient, unites him with the power and presence of the Holy people (Yei), and restores him to the world in a state of wholeness. For this reason many people refer to the entire ceremony as “the Yeibichai.”

My friends and I were at the Tuba City Fair that cold October evening to witness the all night dancing of the Yei. We were told that the Night Chant was held to cure eye and hearing problems, rheumatism or insanity.

Talking God was easily recognizable, not only by his unique vocalizations, but by his distinctive attire: white deerskin wrap, white mask with painted corn stalk, eagle plume headdress, green spruce collar and pouch made from the hide of the tassel-eared squirrel. I remembered I’d seen Talking God depicted in a Yeibichai rug that very afternoon in a Gallup trading post.

Our group huddled near one of the large bonfires surrounding the dance area, soaking in its welcome heat. Hundreds of Navajo were in attendance: elder women wrapped in Pendleton blankets, bronzed faces glowing in the light of the fires, men of proud bearing and countenance standing at their sides and young folks roaming about, dressed in fancy checked shirts, Levis and cowboy boots. The air was filled with the delicious aroma of roast mutton, fry bread and simmering coffee.

Navajo Yeibichai by Shirley Combs Navajo Yeibichai by Shirley Combs

Close behind Talking God was the first dance team, six male and six female divinities, carrying rattles and spruce wands. “Their bodies are daubed with white earth; they wear silver studded belts, pendant fox skins, showy kilts, long woolen stockings, garters and moccasins. Each wears a blue mask which allows the hair to flow out behind.” (Sandner:1979) Water Sprinkler, the clown of the evening, brought up the rear carrying a kit-fox pelt.

The dancers first made low sweeping motions to the right and left while emitting strange whooping cries, sounds unlike any I’d ever heard in a Navajo chant. Talking God then stamped his right foot and the twelve began to dance and sing.

“Ohoho, hehehe. Ohoho hehehe.”

The rhythmic, churning motion of their arms and legs reminded me of a slow moving train. They made their way steadily up the length of the dance area, then split into two lines and danced their way back down. Over the course of the long night, four alternating dance teams performed this ancient, sacred rite.

“They keep up their high, shrill song throughout the dance, and move with their peculiar shuffling motion in long lines together and apart, back and forth. The effect is strange and otherworldly, and it is meant to be. These are the gods, dancing for hope and good health for their people, but they are different, and their nonhuman movements in the flickering firelight mark them as supernatural, beyond mortal ken.” (Sandner:1979)

The next day, at a Chinle trading post, we had a deeper appreciation of Yeibichai rugs. We looked at numerous sizes, shapes and colors. Most of the Yeibichai patterns showed Talking God and Water Sprinkler facing forward, with blue masked dancers facing sideways, legs bent in a dance position. We learned that male and female Yeibichai dancers are differentiated by round or square heads.

We also saw a rug style that depicted kilted figures facing forward with cornstalks at their sides. These were called Yei rugs. They featured only the supernatural deities, not the Yeibichai dance. In addition to cornstalks these patterns usually had a guardian rainbow surrounding the figures. The rainbow was evocative of Navajo sandpaintings, from which the Yei figures are said to have originated. The rugs often had white backgrounds with brightly colored figures or subdued grey backgrounds with muted colors. Though the salesperson was quick to assure us that the rugs were not prayer rugs in any sense of the word, merely “artistic interpretations,” she did suggest that we hang them on a wall and not walk on them.

At dinner that evening we discussed how the sacred Yeibichai dance and Holy Yei figures ever found their way into Navajo textiles. What was the history of the patterns? When I returned home I did some research and found a few answers. As with many Navajo rug designs, the Yei and Yeibichai styles emerged from the collaborative relationship between Navajo weavers and early Reservation traders.

It is generally acknowledged that the earliest commercial Yei rugs appeared around the turn of the century near Farmington, NM. Englishman Dick Simpson, founder of the Gallegos Canyon Trading Post in 1896, was the first to showcase a large, single figure Yei rug. In fact, it was his Navajo wife Ya-na-pah and her older sister Gle-nup-pah, who are credited with weaving some of the finest early Yei rugs. Despite the Navajo prohibition of putting sacred figures into a permanent medium (sandpaintings are always destroyed after a healing ceremony), the commercial success of these Gallegos “blankets” may have encouraged other weavers to imitate them. “Blankets with a central figure…probably began to appear as early as 1910.” (Valette:1997)

In the early 1900’s, respected medicine man and weaver, Hosteen Klah, with the support of Boston socialite, Mary Wheelwright, and trading post owner, Franc Newcomb, broke through all boundaries by weaving both Yei and sacred sandpainting designs. In 1911 Klah is said to have woven “…a set of Yeibichai dancers, which he sold to Mr. Ed Davies for several sheep.” (Newcomb:1964) In a photograph of the Newcomb Trading Post booth at the 1914 Shiprock Fair, a large Yei rug hangs alongside a Whirling Log sandpainting textile. (Newcomb:1966) Both were probably woven by Klah.

Yet it wasn’t until 1917, when Will Evans purchased the Shiprock Trading Company that Yei and Yeibichai rugs were promoted, encouraged and popularized. During Evans’ fifty year relationship with the Navajo, he became completely absorbed and enamored with Navajo culture and spiritual beliefs. “Their language, customs and ceremonies became the study of his life.” From his earliest encounter with a healing ceremony, Will Evans was hooked.

“What interested me most was the large, strange, and to me, beautiful figure which was being spread upon the floor of the Hogan. The picture—and I shall call it just that—was a single figure about 7 feet long, a long narrow body, arms outstretched and with all the ornaments and embellishments with which a Sandpainting is decorated…To say that I was astounded with the artistry of the thing is putting it mildly. I was immediately carried away to a land of enchantment. And figuratively speaking, I have been there ever since.” (Painting With A Passion: Farmington Museum)

Not only did Evans encourage area weavers to weave rugs with highly stylized Yei figures, he began to paint Yei personages on everything in his sphere. Russell Foutz of the Foutz trading family said this of Will Evans:

Yeibichai Rug by Navajo weaver Zonnie Deschenie Yeibichai Rug by Navajo weaver Zonnie Deschenie

“This store has quite a history to it, too, the Shiprock Trading Company. It was run by Uncle Shel, and Claude Powell's dad…Later, a man by the name of Will Evans bought it from them. And Will Evans was a painter, and he painted yé’ii bicheii all over everything--on the tables, on the walls, on the service station and everything. The Shiprock white yé’ii rug didn't come from any Navajo's background--they're copies of Will Evans' [designs]. The Shiprock yé’ii is what he painted all over his store. That store was responsible for the Shiprock yé’ii that come around there.” (Russel Foutz interview:NAU)

Whether one is drawn to a Yei or Yeibichai rug for its beauty, its depiction of ceremonial pageantry, or whether, like Will Evans, one is captivated by the beliefs of a deeply spiritual people; know that Navajo Yei and Yeibichai rugs embody both artistry and courage – the artistry of the weaver and the courage of those, a century ago, who broke with tradition and wove spirit as form.